As a licensed dietitian and a certified coach of Intuitive Eating for dancers, I’m often asked about calories and what dancers need to consider in regard to eating the “right” amount. Similar to weight loss, the discussion of calories often comes with its fair share of varying perspectives and beliefs.
Calories for dancers
From my decade of experience, I can confidently say that many dancers (and athletes, for the most part) underestimate their calorie needs. This can happen intentionally or unintentionally. High levels of activity are known to blunt hunger and as a result, busy dancers may genuinely have misguided hunger (or lack thereof) throughout the day.
Dancers are also more vulnerable to harmful body ideals that ignorantly inform what a dancer’s body “should” look like. Because of this, many dancers may choose to intentionally reduce their caloric intake as a means to lose weight and/or control their food intake– both of which can harm a dancer’s long-term career. And even if it’s not a “diet” but rather a “wellness” choice, any dancer who is counting calories is likely not getting enough. Calorie targets set forth by apps, Google, and/or misinformed coaches grossly underestimate the calorie needs of dancers.
Any dancer who is counting calories is likely not getting enough.
What about intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that teaches us how to maintain a supportive relationship with both food and body. Throughout this process, we learn how to make choices surrounding food (and even exercise) based on our body’s signals, rather than on external goals set forth by diet and wellness culture. Our food choices aren’t solely based on what’s “good” or what’s “healthy,” but rather, stem from what satisfies us and what enables us to feel nourished both mentally and physically.
But while eating intuitively is an incredible skill for anyone to learn, it’s often a long-term goal for those coming from a history knee-deep in diet culture. Consistent undereating, whether it be for weeks, months, or years, can impede one’s hunger cues as the body naturally responds to the caloric restriction with a subsequent reduction in metabolic rate. With these intentional and unintentional factors negatively impacting a dancer’s ability to fuel intuitively, calorie awareness is sometimes an essential part of a dancer’s learning process. This is especially true for dancers needing to restore and/or gain weight. The difficulty with calorie awareness, however, is if a dancer develops obsessive tendencies around a calculated calorie goal. For this reason, it’s not only recommended that dancers refrain from relying too heavily on target calorie goals, but also that they work alongside a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if wanting to learn more about their daily needs.
But I have no idea if I’m eating enough calories (or too much)
Since calories provide the energy needed to not only perform but also sustain basic metabolic functioning, then eating too few calories risks injury and nutrient deficiencies. And because calories are a widely confusing and sometimes misguided topic, I want to cover a few common questions:
I want to fuel my body sufficiently. How many calories should I aim for?
Calorie needs are extremely difficult to measure precisely, but there are mathematical equations that can be used to roughly estimate one’s daily calorie needs. Some are based on gold-standard evidential support and others are based on nothing more than a thumbs up from Google. The problem with any quick calculation, however, is its inability to account for one’s true individual energy expenditure (or the number of calories the body is burning in one day).
The International Association of Dance Medicine suggests a “rough estimate of 45-50 calories per kilogram of body weight for females and 50-55 calories per kilogram of body weight for males,” which is based on research from the sports community (1,2,3- content warning: gender-exclusive language). This is a great starting point, but it won’t account for individual variations. It is therefore emphasized that anyone looking for specific guidance should seek the help of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Should I count calories?
In short, no. Counting calories is not a prerequisite to “health.” In fact, counting calories will do more harm than good, especially when it comes to your mental health. Calorie-counting throughout your day sacrifices your time, which could otherwise be spent broadening your technique and working on your overall performance goals. As I mentioned earlier, any dancer who is counting calories is likely not getting enough. Here are a few additional sacrifices to consider when counting calories:
- Your social life will go downhill as dining out becomes a research-driven frenzy of what can and cannot fit into your daily calorie goal.
- You’ll lose out on the enjoyment of food as your daily choices depend primarily on a numbered target rather than on your personal food preferences.
- You’ll start feeling guilty if and when you break from your imposed calorie limit (and trust me… it’ll happen!)
As mentioned previously, calorie awareness may be a helpful tool for dancers needing to restore and/or gain weight. You’ll want to make sure that your body is sufficiently fueled. Use the tools discussed in the next question to assess whether or not you need to boost your intake.
If I don’t count, then how do I know if I’m eating enough calories?
This is a legitimate concern, especially as you work hard to succeed as an artistic athlete. There are several signs that we should consider when the question of whether or not our daily caloric intake is enough. Sufficient caloric intake is most often evidenced by a consistent menstrual cycle. Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea occurs when those with normal regular cycles miss a period for 3 or more consecutive months or, in those with irregular cycles, miss a period for 6 or more consecutive months.
For males, it can be harder to identify a caloric deficit, but this doesn’t mean that males have any less risk. Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (previously known as the Female Athlete Triad) can help to identify a broader range of negative health consequences that result from consistent undereating. Some of these include a lack of concentration, recurrent injuries, chronic fatigue, irritability, depression, loss of muscle strength, and decreased coordination. Here are a few more:
If you can relate to one or more of these symptoms, then it may be a sign that you’re not eating enough. It’s recommended that all dancers consult with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and/or a medical doctor to better identify their risk for hormonal imbalances related to energy deficiency.
But what if I’m eating too many calories?
Overeating and portion control are two major points of interest for many dancers and I discuss them further in the following articles and videos. Identifying the source of your concern and learning how to eat mindfully are two helpful strategies. Check out the following videos for additional guidance: